A Strange Equality in His Grandiosity: On Craft and Milan Kundera




DISCUSSIONS SURROUNDING MILAN KUNDERA’S work have mainly revolved around its political explorations of individualism versus totalitarianism, and around his capacity for developing sexual psychology and interrogating the power dynamics of (heterosexual) sex. Almost a name-drop calling card for lit intellectuals in the 1990s, Kundera has more recently fallen out of favor among contemporary readers for a host of reasons ranging from allegations of his having turned in a colleague to the communists prior to his exile from Czechoslovakia, to his portrayals of women that — although his central characters are often female and exquisitely nuanced — can suffer at best from an outdated sexism and ageism and at worst full-on woman-fearing misogyny. His shift from writing in his native Czech to writing directly in French, beginning in 1993, arguably also contributed to the lesser relevance of his work, as none of his French-penned novels has ever been as critically well received as his earlier masterpieces, and are generally seen as heralding a sharp decrease in ambition and scope. Kundera is among those writers rumored to have been considered for the Nobel numerous times, yet the controversy surrounding his political actions more than half a century ago (perhaps justly) seems to assure that he will never receive the honor.

One of the unfortunate results of Kundera’s seeming to fade away as a literary great, even while he is still living, is that he may actually be the most interesting long-term practitioner of the “editorial omniscient” point of view: the perspective from which Kundera overwhelmingly wrote after his debut (first-person ensemble) novel, The Joke. An under-recognized and often poorly understood point of view, to begin with, not commonly used in contemporary literature (though there are outstanding exceptions like Jess Walter and Zadie Smith), a tour through Kundera’s career is essentially a master course in the variations, progressions, and ultimate contradictions of editorial omniscience, yet rarely is this discussed in any depth in criticism of his work, being relegated, perhaps, to a technical issue of “craft.”

Tracing Kundera’s developments in the editorial omniscient and their contribution to the form is a dizzying nonlinear puzzle, stretching roughly from Laughable Loves (1969) to Immortality (1991). The experiment begins, in particular, with the psychologically ominous and unfortunately now obscure short story “The Hitchhiking Game” in Laughable Loves.

“The Hitchhiking Game,” a high-wire act of he thinks/she thinks sexual politics, concerns a couple referred to — in a way evocative of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” — as “the young man” and “the girl,” on the first day of their two-week holiday together. Here, Kundera uses the third-person editorial omniscient point of view more or less the way it would be taught by a writing workshop (making it, obviously, a great tool in a writing workshop), exemplifying all its oft-cited prowesses. His omniscient point of view has a “total” knowledge that feels impersonal, coolly objective, but of course, is not: no author is ever any more “objective” than a character when giving philosophy and opinion (areas from which none of Kundera’s work suffer a lack). Kundera ricochets, in “The Hitchhiking Game,” from the point of view of the young man — who is alternately thrilled, irritated, aroused, and eventually contemptuous, in the face of the “game” initiated by his inexperienced girlfriend (in which she pretends to be a brazen hitchhiker he has picked up) — back to the girl herself, while she plots, frets, is titillated, loses herself, and ultimately becomes trapped in her role. He interprets for the reader both characters’ thoughts and motives even when the characters themselves are unaware of what drives them, but also provides what the writer Janet Burroway, in discussing the third-person editorial omniscient point of view, calls “general reflections, judgments, and truths.” Kundera skillfully announces his intent to do exactly that from the very onset of “The Hitchhiking Game” with the passage:

Jealousy isn’t a pleasant quality, but if it isn’t overdone (and if it’s combined with modesty), apart from its inconvenience there’s even something touching about it. At least that’s what the young man thought. Because he was only twenty-eight, it seemed to him that he was old and knew everything that a man could know about women.

It’s very worth noting that craft books such as Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, often use words like “objective” or “detachment” when discussing the third-person editorial omniscient, but that what they seem to actually mean is “telling what the author thinks instead of what the character would think.” Kundera, who is often as much philosopher as novelist, is indeed highly subjective in his analysis, such that the reader can easily ascertain his positions; at one point in “The Hitchhiking Game,” he pipes in, “Fortunately women have the miraculous ability to change the meaning of their actions after the event.” Um … okay, Old White Czech Guy, if you say so. Yet in the world-building of Kundera’s earlier fiction, this sort of “belief” is presented as “fact.” If the third-person editorial omniscient presents the author as “god,” then Kundera is an Old Testament sort of god, egotistical and constantly spouting so-called wisdoms with which others may easily disagree. “The Hitchhiking Game” is an intoxicating tennis match, the young man and the girl volleying their moves across the net, with Kundera himself, an unnamed authorial presence, serving as sports announcer, interpreting, analyzing. He refers, at one point, to the young man being “aware of the laws of universal transience,” even though it seems unlikely that the young man himself would, at the very least, term it thus. He tells us that “[c]hildish desires withstand all the snares of the adult mind and often survive into ripe old age.” His authorial intrusions are simply part of the text: loose, casual, and a given.

This particular form of third-person editorial omniscient suits Kundera’s earlier work, which is almost entirely centered on short movements (as is fitting of his passion for music, with some of his fiction even mimicking the structure of symphonies). There is not enough space in Kundera’s earlier fiction, for the most part, for him to step out entirely from behind the third-person veil of authorial anonymity. In pieces like “The Hitchhiking Game” (and “Symposium,” perhaps the best-known story in the same collection, Laughable Loves), although characters’ philosophical viewpoints are developed with a depth and precision rarely seen in such short fiction, it would be fair, still, to say that all of his characters are nonetheless “types,” serving as mouthpieces (often quite explicitly, giving their thoughts on the meaning of life — mainly sex and politics — in dialogue) for Kundera’s agenda. He has been quoted as saying that his obsession is more or less always the question of what happens to an individual when he bumps up against totalitarianism. But to reduce Kundera’s fiction, even in his earlier years, to political allegory would be a mistake. And it is here that lies, perhaps, the heart of what differentiates the distinct value of editorial omniscience in fiction from the authorial voice of, say, political theory: fiction uses empathy and illustration rather than logic, research, and argument to build its case, and its case is far more about what rings as emotional truth than about establishing objective fact. Yes, the young man and the girl of “The Hitchhiking Game” are beleaguered by their dull communist-era jobs, by their short vacation times. But in the end, they are their own worst enemies, motivated by fierce inner desires they cannot name, pawns to what Kundera posits as a kind of universal undertow of sexual power dynamics that are too intoxicating — and toxic — to overcome.

What concerns Kundera most from the get-go — and what is the terrain of literature far more than of polemical nonfiction — is the way we trap each other and ourselves even in the face of “freedom.” Reading Kundera is much less like reading philosophy or theory than it is like watching a psychological chess master play himself, backing himself repeatedly into checkmates he should know by now to avoid, because great fiction characters — like people — cannot be reduced to easy principles even when their author may have intended otherwise.

In the decade between Laughable Loves and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (a favorite of some hardcore Kundera aficionados), Kundera’s use of the editorial omniscience shows a shift from even the conventional pretense of impartial authority to a more overtly, unabashedly subjective storytelling. In Laughter and Forgetting, called by John Updike “more than a collection of seven stories yet certainly no novel,” Kundera becomes radically more experimental in form and tone. In the section called “Angels” in particular, he blends his own (first-person and highly intimate) autobiographical experiences with those of his fictional characters, some of whom populate a sadly “real” world, while others are trapped in a kind of nightmare surrealism. Though it is arguable that Kundera never worked nearly as hard as most writers to hide the scaffolding of his fiction as a construction, in Laughter and Forgetting he abandons altogether any efforts made in pieces like “The Hitchhiking Game” to lure his reader into the proverbial suspension of disbelief (e.g., “the young man” and “the girl” are real, and we, the readers, are somehow privy to their private moments). Instead, he begins to actively court our disbelief, interrogating and dissecting the nature of art and fiction as he writes it. Though still using third person, Kundera-the-author inserts himself into the text like a brilliant but pushy tour guide, not only analyzing his own characters for us but now, in a sense, giving us instructions on how to read his books as well.

In Part One of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, called “Lost Letters,” Kundera sets this tone early when he abruptly abandons characters Mirek and Zdena to conversationally tell the reader, “Since we can no longer assume any single historical event, no matter how recent, to be common knowledge, I must treat events dating back only a few years as if they were a thousand years old.” He goes on to argue with readers directly through statements like, “Yes, say what you will,” and, “Now let me repeat,” eventually abandoning his characters completely as if carried away with a conversation in his own head. “If I were to write a novel about that generation of talented radical thinkers, I would call it Stalking a Lost Deed,” he concludes, without even a nod toward transitioning back to his protagonist Mirek.

Here, unlike in “The Hitchhiking Game,” Kundera has announced himself, not only as a consciousness with an agenda, but in fact as a novelist. In doing so, it becomes impossible for his readers to simply lose themselves entirely in the story of his characters: Kundera’s existence at the very surface of the text, pulling the strings — and doing so to make very deliberate points to us — becomes inextricable from character and plot. Still, from the earlier sections of Laughter and Forgetting, we are likely unprepared for “Angels,” when Kundera effectively blows apart any imperative that first person be “realistic” or third person “objective.” Here, he nakedly confesses to the reader his long-ago momentary urge (not acted upon) to rape an old friend, R, with whom he has shared a traumatic political past — yet this intensely intimate first-person account is interspersed with a surrealist story of a teacher, Madame Raphael, and her two pet students, who by the end of the piece have taken flight during a dance, and ascended straight through the ceiling of their classroom. From this juxtaposition on, no traditional point of view rules seem to apply. Laughter and Forgetting was a product of the era of Barthelme, of Barry Hannah, and Kundera, living in France by that time, was often likened in reviews to such American postmodernists. This “book” (debate exists among critics as to whether Laughter and Forgetting is a collection or a novel) positioned him as much more than a product of his geographical, political, and sexual place and time, or even as a commentator on the nature of Art, but also solidified his reputation as one of our most valuable boundary-pushers of form.

It is from this launching point that Kundera’s use of omniscience continues to expand exponentially, altering the concept of what constitutes “third-person editorial omniscient” and pushing it beyond the boundaries defined in any of the usual craft books. Though he has already blended first and third person, realism and surrealism, now he introduces the most oft-cited character in Laughter and Forgetting, Tamina, by musing on the fact that there are “two or three new fictional characters baptized on earth every second,” before reluctantly arriving upon her name. This is not just the breaking of a fourth wall in terms of acknowledging the artist’s complicity with the creation of art and threatening the suspension of disbelief, but further calls into question what “first person” versus “third person” really mean. Is the so-called third person even an actual Thing, or is all writing ultimately in the first person? Later, in both The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality, Kundera continued this tactic of introducing his protagonists by intimately telling the reader how he happened to arrive at creating them.

“I have been thinking about Tomas for many years,” Kundera muses, of the womanizing doctor whose life around and following the Prague Spring is chronicled in Unbearable Lightness. Well, yes, indeed he had been — Tomas is a nearly identical character to Dr. Havel in “Symposium” and its “sequel” in the same collection (Laughable Loves), only here, Kundera has developed a true novelist’s sensibility, and Tomas, unlike Havel, is more than a mass of ideas and intellectual agendas spouted in dialogue, instead also possessing a complex past, contradictions, a beating, longing heart. If one of the overriding characteristics of the experimental point of view (usually white and male) fiction writer who peaked sometime between the 1970s and 1990s tends to be a lack of reverence for intricate character development in favor of feats of language and form, Kundera does not fit in, quite, on this playground either. Rather, it is fascinating that Kundera should develop Tomas — as well as his wife Teresa and lover Sabina — in such profound and loving depth only to constantly remind us that they are novelistic creations he came up with while looking across a courtyard.

In Immortality, his protagonist Agnes is, likewise, born of a single gesture, when Kundera witnesses a woman in her 60s giving a girlish wave to her swimming instructor at his health club. Yes … yes, I know that Kundera as our narrator-on-high initially finds the gesture ridiculous and even pathetic in an older woman, whose body “remembers” a gesture from when she used to be young and hot — yes, I know that Kundera makes his fictional male swim instructor barely able to suppress a laugh and that you, dear aspiring writer who was not born in Eastern Europe in 1929, want to put the book down straight away and conclude that this bozo has nothing to teach you, but bear with me for a moment here. “And then the word Agnes entered my mind,” Kundera tells us. “Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.” And so we — along with Kundera — are drawn along for the ride as Agnes, far from seeming pitiful, breathes life into her own existence and becomes by turns imperious, secretive, analytical, and decidedly sexy, whether her creator originally wanted to grant her this or not. (One gets the impression that for all his pontificating, Kundera’s creations are running the show far more than his meta-narrative would like to let on.)

The change from earlier works like “The Hitchhiking Game” to Kundera’s two most ambitious novels is marked, but the variations between these two novels may be greater still. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera remains a strange puppet master of sorts: he uses the first person “I” to refer to himself and his thoughts and views, but he never claims any direct interaction with the story itself other than copping to having thought it up in his own mind. In Immortality, by contrast, he furthers the technique of parallel narratives between himself and his cast of characters as in his earlier “Angels,” only here he abandons surrealism and separatism and allows the stories to overlap. The narrator is the author and also a character, yes, but this time Kundera enters the explicitly fictional parts of the text and “meets” some of his characters at a Paris health club. His (made up? IRL?) close friend, Professor Avenarius, with whom Kundera-the-character appears in several scenes, later becomes the lover of Agnes’s charismatic and infuriating younger sister Laura, and the defense attorney for her husband, Paul. The presence of Kundera — author, narrator, character — becomes so pronounced that, when Kundera goes back in time (Immortality has no boundaries or constraints with time, as its title might suggest) to relay the thwarted romance between Goethe and Bettina, or to chronicle an afterlife philosophical digression between Goethe and Hemingway, the third-person narration reads almost as first-person conjecture — a speculative novel within a fictional essay. Kundera the character, by entering the text this way, has essentially made a proper third-person point of view impossible.

If first person is defined, ultimately, by a story being narrated by a character in that story, then Immortality has taken that leap, despite also containing some of the most wide-ranging and masterful third-person editorial omniscient sections in any contemporary novel. Hence, Kundera has assumed a brand of writing in the third person while maintaining all the explicit intimacy, subjectivity, and playfulness of first person. Immortality doesn’t confine to the traditional limits of first person, because the author/character can know “everything,” not just what occurs when he is present. Yet it fails, likewise, to adhere to third-person point of view in any conventional manner either. The novel exists on a hybrid edge of point of view, encompassing more than one thing, not just in different “sections” as with his earlier work but simultaneously, throughout.

It is abundantly clear that all of Kundera’s earlier experimentations with both editorial omniscient and autobiographical fiction have led to this point. Immortality, though it never attained the popularity of Unbearable Lightness, felt even in 1991 like a writer reaching the height of his game, from which point there might be no remaining walls to break and a regression seemed inevitable. Though it suffers from some of the same eroticized misogyny as Kundera’s other works (arguably less so, but not arguably not-at-all), Immortality feels like a pinnacle of a career. Not only has Kundera managed to crack open what “point of view” even means in the context of the post- (and post-post-)modern novel, but he has also fully transcended his geography, writing about French citizens who have never lived through any totalitarian regime, whose lives are ordinary ones not writ large by massive world events. By mingling these characters with “immortal” greats like Hemingway and Goethe, as well as with “himself,” he achieves a strange equality in his (typically Kunderean) grandiosity: we are all irrelevant; we are all Immortals.

What can the modern reader or emerging writer take away from Kundera, and his continued pushing of point-of-view conventions until they break free of their usual boundaries? Well, though it may be impossible to read Kundera now with the same intellectual and emotional earnestness toward his “wisdom” that we did in the 1980s, before #MeToo or for god’s sake even the internet, his oeuvre of work remains a unique, inventive, and definitive craft book on editorial omniscience in its diverse uses. Kundera proved a writer fearless in his “editorial” subjectivity, whatever we may think of the nature of his subjective self; unafraid to give us his views on everything from classical composers to mind/body duality, he eventually abandoned the “man behind the screen” model of a Wizard of Oz to enter his own story and grapple on equal footing with his characters. The novel of ideas is Kundera’s very foundation, but by the later stages of his Czech-authored books, he no longer hides behind feigned objectivity and authority, instead becoming as absurd, as struggling, as fallible as any of his fabricated characters. If his intellectual assuredness is no less than ever, his ability to make fun of himself and question his own status has exploded since those self-important days of “The Hitchhiking Game.” “You know perfectly well,” Goethe tells Ernest Hemingway in Immortality, “that at this moment we are but the frivolous fantasy of a novelist who lets us say things we would probably never say on our own.” Later, at a Paris gym (at which they serve wine, mais oui), Kundera chats with his own fictional creations, Paul and Laura, when Paul stands up and raises his glass high. “I drink to the end of the old days!” he proclaims. And though Kundera’s novels follow more a principle of Eternal Return, what he has achieved feels new and dizzyingly modern in form and content even more than a quarter century following its publication.

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Gina Frangello is the author of the novels A Life in Men and Every Kind of Wanting. Her memoir, Blow Your House Down, will be out on Counterpoint in 2021.

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Featured image: “Milan Kundera in 1980” by Elisa Cabot is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

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